The Hagia Sophia Marks History

The Hagia Sophia is one of the world’s most recognised and beautiful buildings. It is deservedly a Unesco World Heritage site.

I have yet to visit the truly extraordinary city of Istanbul and to walk inside this magnificent architecture along the narrows of the Bosphorus.  I have dreamed of wandering along its marble floors, admiring the mosaics and being entranced by the dome above. This Museum is no more.

Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has decided to change the Hagia Sophia. A Turkish Court has given the green light for annulling the Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum and to turning it once more into a Mosque. The Hagia Sophia has been a museum for nearly a century. Beforehand it was a Mosque. The Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453 saw the building converted from a church into a Mosque. Prior to the Ottoman invasion, the Hagia Sophia stood as a Christian Church for almost 1,000 years. 

President Erdogan has signalled that “Like all our mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be wide open to locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims”. 

The first Muslim prayers will return to the Hagia Sophia on July 24th.

To be clear, I am not arguing against museums being transformed into mosques. There is another and more significant point to highlight about this historic decision. The return of the Hagia Sophia to a mosque illustrates the shifting cultural confidence around the world in 2020.

For 3,000 years Istanbul has stood at the world’s crossroads; it is where East meets West. For millennia this ancient city has witnessed civilisations rise and fall. While Turkey is no longer considered one of the world’s great powers, its geographical location remains significant. More so, the Hagia Sophia is symbolic of the global fault lines between East and West, and between Islam and cultural Christianity. 

Turkey is but one of a growing number of States who are observing a fractured, disillusioned, and weakened West. The United States, Europe, the United Kingdom, and even Australia, are pre occupied with internal culture wars that are quite literally tearing societies apart. Our politics is becoming increasingly divided and schismatic, our public figures are running fast to the extremities of left and right, and cancel culture is ready to devour any who cross the wrong line. What makes this venture more problematic is how the line continually moves. No one knows from one week to the next what the accept orthodoxy is, and yet everyone understands that stepping over this chalk line amounts to reputational suicide. In public discourse there exists little good will and common ground is rare to find. In the space of a few short years, western nations have dismantled their societies more successfully than two World Wars.

Unsurprisingly, this growing tribalism is creating disillusionment with mainstream politics, corporate identity games, and with the higher education sector. When we add a serious pandemic to the equation and the question of Climate Change, it is no wonder people are becoming anxious, depressed, and even despairing of hope itself. Internal fighting doesn’t build strong communities and resilient nations. But like the final days of Rome, the distraction and exhaustion gives others licence to take action.

There is an audible crescendoing confidence to despise Western culture. After all, when the West is itself setting fire to its past, this hardly discourages the rest of the world to embrace Western ideals. It is unlikely that China would be acting so confidently in Hong Kong had this not been the case. And for President Erdogan, the time is ripe for him to reinforce his Islamic credentials and to turn away from the fruits of Europe, which Turkey temporality found itself wanting to enjoy.

Of course, over here in the West the left will blame the right and the right will throw insults at the left. The reality is, in different ways both are responsible. When we pursue wealth at the cost of character, should we be surprised that people eventually object? When sexual identity becomes the primary definition of self worth, should we be shocked when the basic units of community are crushed?

20 years ago the United States was esteemed by most people around the world. Today, many of her own citizens despite her and want her institutions and constitution dismantled. Australia has not faired as negatively as our important ally, but we are not far behind. Our lackadaisical attitude and geographical remoteness has probably saved us from some of the sharpest barbs thus far, but these ‘qualities’ are no long term strategy for survival and prosperity.

I don’t think we can downplay the significance of President Erdogan’s decision.  History has turned on the changing Hagia Sophia and may well do so again.

It must be said though, lest we mess up Christian theology and witness, the church is not its building. The Church is the people, the body of Christ who are covenanted to one another and who congregate in the same space for mutual edification, discipleship, and love. A Church can just as successfully meet in a Cathedral as it can in a community hall or family lounge room. 

Gospel witness will not suffer as a result of returning this once church building back into a mosque. It does however serve as a reminder for churches to not take for granted the time we have to live and serve and to preach Jesus Christ as Lord.

For Christian Churches, whether in Turkey, Tulsa, Tottenham, or Templestowe, we must reform our ways, putting out trust in Christ and our hope in his Gospel. Churches desperately need Gospel conviction, clarity, and courage. This is not about slowing the rot in the West, but pointing people to the only certain hope there is. 

Churches are too often complicate in cultural syncretism and spiritual apostasy. When Churches find themselves too close to the halls of power, the temptation to accommodate is strong. Other churches are desperate to find their place and so will sacrifice almost anything for acceptance. 

The historian Tom Holland, who isn’t a Christian, has made this interesting observation about English churches (and the same could be said of Churches here in Australia),

“I see no point in bishops or preachers or Christian evangelists just recycling the kind of stuff you can get from any kind of soft left liberal because everyone is giving that…if they’ve got views on original sin I would be very interested to hear that”.

Whether it is claiming that President Trump is God’s ordained man or suggesting he is the antiChrist, whether it’s worshipping unfettered capitalism or preaching the gospel of  progressivism, too often Churches have sold their soul, betrayed Christ, and become the weakling and insipid shells that they are today. Much repentance is required. And praise God for the many churches who remain faithful in word and deed; they are precious to God and are wonderful outposts to eternal things.

Kingdoms come and go. Superpowers are made and they fade or are destroyed. It has always been the case. Buildings are created and they too eventually decay and crumble. According to Jesus Christ, the one entity that will last is his Church. 

“ I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18).

It is sad to see the Hagia Sophia morph once again. Knowing what this decision embodies mustn’t be missed. In all this, one thing is certain, 

“my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:10-11)

JK Rowling, Cancel Culture, and the Gradual Demise of the West

Real life dementors are swooping around JK Rowling and they’re coming for you too.

JK Rowling has found herself caught up in cancel culture. Both JK Rowling and Harry Potter are currently trending on Twitter. There are 100,000s comments and memes expressing outrage. Indeed many of these tweets are themselves outrageous and even abusive. 

What did JK Rowling say to invoke such anger? She dared challenge the culture’s narrative.

“If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.”

Let’s be clear, JK Rowling hasn’t said anything controversial. She has simply noted an established fact: a scientific, biological, and sociological fact. Indeed, sex is one of the few self evident truths that has been universally accepted in all human history and across cultures, that is, until the last few years. In today’s Western world, to affirm that women are women and that men are men is to speak heresy. To suggest sex is real is paramount to signing your own incarceration to Azkaban.

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Our societies have been occupied by other important issues of late, especially the COVID-19 pandemic and now racism. The response to JK Rowling is a reminder however that even a pandemic and racism don’t diminish the fervour of those following the latest chapter in the sexual revolution. Again note, we are talking about half a million comments stemming from a simple statement affirming that women are women. This shows us how nothing is to excuse, distract, or dilute, full and unquestioned adherence to the sexual milieu.

While our attention has been necessarily elsewhere, the Victorian Government is still planning to introduce legislation this year that may well prohibit classical Christian teaching on sex and gender. Also, over the past few days, The Australian has published two important articles exposing the wrongful conflation of autism with gender dysphoria. Girls with autism are being misdiagnosed with gender dysphoria and are undergoing treatment to change their gender.

“Professor Attwood, a psychologist based in Brisbane and author of the guide known globally as the “Asperger’s bible”, said unhurried and thoughtful gender change could be a success but he worried about a crash back into depression if trans status was embraced with impulsive and unrealistic hopes of a fix for autism“Once they’ve changed gender, they still have autism and when (gender) transition doesn’t solve their problems they think, Oh no, that was the only option I had, what’s the point of life?,” he told The Australian.

“One of the characteristics of autism is what we call a one-track mind, and sometimes the issue of gender dysphoria (discomfort with one’s body) and changing gender becomes a special interest with a phenomenal knowledge and determination.”

Not even medicine is immune to popular social theory. Our culture’s inability to affirm basic scientific and social truth exposes a growing distrust of authority and a preference to determine moral goodness by personal inclinations. This has the negative effect of harming children and creating greater social disharmony.

As today’s example with JK Rowling demonstrates, hardline secularists preach a message of tolerance that is soaked in hateful speech. They call for justice and acceptance while demeaning everyone around them and demanding their silence. Secularist sermons are as religious as the most ardent fundamentalist. They are as confident as the Titanic sailing from the shores of England and will prove to be as successful.  Except, in this case, the new moral arbiters are not waiting for the iceberg to hit, they are already busy throwing overboard anyone and everyone who questions the decided course, which is to hit the iceberg. That is the agenda. We are not witnessing the rebirth of Western culture as much as we are signalling its gradual demolition.

The project of relativising truth was all along about breaking down society in order to introduce a new and authoritarian truth. This new order exists without reason and grace and it insists on our total allegiance. Gender theory serves as the flagship for the new orthodoxy. The fact that this theory keeps bending and changing every few months is ignored by the most vocal evangelists. Whatever its latest iteration, unwavering conformity is demanded.

Paul Kelly has offered this insightful analysis of the fracturing of Western culture. He says,

“The progressive mantra is that Western liberalism is immoral with its tolerance of colonialism, invasion, racism, inequality, climate cowardice, sexism and patriarchy. While Australians are pragmatic and responsive to sensible changes in the liberal status quo, progressivism demands a new moral order that unnerves and divides the community. It is about power. It sees every issue in terms of a victim class and an oppressor class. It is more interested in power than solutions. It demands people change their values to fit its moral impositions and it is disgusted by how liberalism has tolerated so many reactionary views…”

“…American writer Yuval Levin argued in his 2016 book, The Fractured Republic, that culture was being re-engineered. It was now what the individual preferred it to be. Once your guiding star becomes your own self-expression then, as Levin says, we “recoil from any demands that we conform to the requirements of some external moral standard — a set of rules that keeps ‘me’ from being ‘the real me’, ‘true to myself’ ”.

Such rules were to be discarded. Indeed, they were to be mocked, with the Christian religion top of the list. Such individual empowerment leads to defiance of moral instructions handed down by church, state or nearly any authority. Those defying the authority are applauded because being “true to yourself” is seen as the ultimate morality.”

Jesus declares that the “truth sets us free”. Yet, we see our society abandoning truth on many fronts; not only Christian truths but also universal knowledge. We see it with our attitudes toward the unborn, we see it when society denigrates other races, and it’s evident in our whitewashing of sex and gender. The situation is made more complex because past generations have not always offered a better discourse. Examples abound of where Western culture has previously suppressed self evident moral truth in the name of other ideologies, but this is no justification for repeating the sin of Adam today.

As Paul Kelly suggests in his article, Western societies like Australia are likely to become more fragmented and tribal. One of the byproducts of this is that as we grow weaker, we become more vulnerable. The sun is slowly setting on the West, less because of emerging powers like Communist China, but because like Rome we have chosen to destroy ourselves. At times we highlight genuine issues and then weaponise them to knock each other out. Agreement is often aloof and kindness even more distant. It is telling that as a society we can no longer agree on what a woman is and what a man is.

That there are individuals who believe they are born in the wrong body cannot be denied. That most children who wrestle with this disjuncture find the issue resolved as they grow into adulthood is also a fact. That some individuals continue to struggle with their gender identity does not mean we dismiss biological facts, but it does require us to find suitable ways to love and support them. Indeed, while Christian ethics is largely dismissed by today’s cultural elites, it is the Bible belief that all people are made in the image of God that teaches us that all people matter. We do not leave those aside those who are crying for help, rather we come alongside them.

The West is in trouble. As a Christian, my primary focus is not on keeping the West. However, to say none of it matters is simply naive. With all its flaws and failures, Western civilisation has given the world liberties and life that have not grown elsewhere. Again, the very notion of human equality and dignity depends on Judeo-Christian teaching.  If the West is to be saved, we need to rediscover the very doctrines upon which it was built, and indeed the very same teachings that are now flourishing in many other parts of the world; name Christianity. This exercise, however, requires humility and even repentance. At the moment, there is little appetite for either.